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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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RHSU Classic: Picturing Trump as the School Choice Guy

By Rick Hess — February 11, 2020 2 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

Amidst the early 2017 debate over whether President Trump should propose major, national school choice legislation, I tended to think that such a move would be bad public policy and unhelpful for school choice (this whole topic is obviously back in the news in light of the president’s SOTU). I discussed this in various venues, taking to the pages of USA Today, for instance, to suggest that “School choice can’t afford to be TrumpChoice.” There’s a diminishing marginal utility to such pieces, of course. So, following the advice I routinely give young writers, I tried to “show rather than tell” why Trump’s leadership could be problematic, even for those of us who generally support school choice. This piece was the result—though to be sure, Donald Trump is such a polarizing figure that stabs at satire can fall flat. Now, on to number 14, originally published on June 8, 2017:

Trump didn’t say much about school choice during the campaign, and, since the election, he’s been so busy—what with blasting the mayor of London and Comey and all—that he hasn’t much focused on the issue. But, with tax cuts on the ropes and health care reform on life support, the White House is apparently poised to launch a big school choice push. They’re gearing up to put Trump’s adroit political skills, powerful rhetorical chops, and 39 percent approval to work. This is exciting stuff. Enthusiasts hope that, with any luck, Trump will do for school choice what he’s done for Sean Spicer’s career.

I can see the nationally televised Oval Office address now:

Good evening, my fellow Americans. I'd like to talk to you tonight about American carnage, our terrible schools, and the need for school choice. School choice is great, just fantastic. It will save so many victims of our awful, failing schools. Schools that can't get any worse. School choice, so very important. I'll tell you why. Let me tell you about Kip Charter. You're hearing more and more about him nowadays. A really high-energy, impressive guy. He's opened thousands of schools across the country. Great schools; the best, believe me. I've told my people, we're going to get him in here to make sure all Americans get school choice. When the big hurricane hit New Orleans—hurricanes, total losers by the way, just terrible—Kip didn't wait to act. He opened lots of great schools in New Orleans, a great, great city, love the beignets. Great food. He had hundreds of great schools going there, better schools than anywhere. Amazing schools. The experts, the top ones, all say so. Families in the city were knocking on his door, saying, "Please let me in your school, Mr. Charter." And he did. Now he's running 7,000 schools across the country. He serves 3 million students. Good for him. So much better than the losers at the failing New York Times, which keeps losing customers. Kip's a winner. His schools are very, very cheap. Very competitive prices. And they don't use the Common Core, a terrible, terrible idea, by the way. And now, whatever the fake media say, the Common Core is out, no more, finished, big time—and the Second Amendment is in! That's what'll make American schools great again. Parents and all the teachers and everybody getting together around a school to make it great. And doing their Second Amendment rights. So very, very important. Anyway, Kip wanted his school to be more local. He knew that there are some good people in Washington, yes, it's true, some good people, but that bureaucrats just want the money and don't really care that much about what they're doing. So his schools have a highly respected, tremendous track record. Another kind of school choice is choosing another school. Everyone should be able to be able to choose schools, in New York or Wisconsin or Pittsburgh. My kids have gone to great schools like the Hill School, St. Andrew's, Chapin, Choate Rosemary Hall, and Trinity. I chose them all. Great, great schools—the best. And look how beautifully they have turned out. Just look at Ivanka. Tremendous, just tremendous. When you talk to the really top minds about schools, and I mean the top minds, you learn things not in the fake news. Some families in Wisconsin or Pittsburgh don't get to choose Trinity or St. Andrew's. So very unfair. The fake news media says nothing; it's too busy writing about that terrible liar James Comey. Such a liar. Good schools teach people to tell truth from lies. So very important. If we can put a man on the moon or invent Uber or build skyscrapers—and I know about skyscrapers, the biggest, the best, the classiest—we can make sure that everyone gets to choose a school. And those schools should be free. I'm a builder. I've built huge buildings, the best ones. Schools are so cheap, trust me. It's just pencils and chalkboards and desks and teachers. Easy. Now, some people are against school choice. Terrible people, just terrible. They're making lots of money and don't want anything to change. People like Crooked Hillary say children shouldn't get any choice. They want to tell everyone to send their kid to one school. That's pathetic. It's not American. It's just sad, low-energy thinking. Crooked Hillary and the teacher unions say we don't have the money for school choice. They're such liars. We're number one in terms of cost per pupil by a factor of, worldwide, by a factor of many, many times. Many times. Number two is so far behind, forget it. Such an embarrassment. We waste so much money on bad things, on dumb things. We spend money so badly that countries you've hardly heard of are ahead of us and spending almost nothing. So, I'm telling Congress to pass a school choice plan. It should be the biggest, the best. For everyone. Whatever you like. Totally free. Total competition. It'll be tremendous. If you live in a neighborhood that doesn't have Trinity or Chapin, we're going to build you one. That's such a good idea. No obstruction. No bureaucrats. And if a state refuses to put kids first, it will pay. No federal funds. None. And I'm going to tell people: Choose a side. You're for our plan to help kids or you're with the losers. That's so very true. May God bless you and God bless America. Good night.

Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect that Trump’s energetic support is one of the worst things that could happen to school choice. After all, school choice has been making big, steady strides. The number of private school choice programs has tripled in the past decade; they now exist in half the states. Given his supersized megaphone, Trump could all too easily reframe the issue, complicating grassroots support, sideswiping thoughtfully articulated policies, and trampling carefully crafted appeals. This school choice supporter thinks that advocates would do themselves a huge favor by keeping the walking tsunami that is President Trump as far from their efforts as humanly possible.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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